Breakthrough Artist of 2016: Dan Lam's Strangely Captivating Sculptures

Artwork Archive | January 10, 2017 (Updated April 12, 2021)

Compliments by Dan Lam.

Meet artist Dan Lam.

When I asked Dan Lam how important she thought social media was for today’s artists, she paused and pointed out that we wouldn’t be talking if it wasn’t for Instagram. And, it’s true.

I connected with Dan Lam (aka @Sopopomo) on Instagram a while back and in the last year or so have watched her career absolutely skyrocket. While I was initially attracted to the amorphous, tactile, vibrant sculptures that ooze off bookshelves and look like surreal pets, it has also been fascinating to watch a young artist’s career grow so rapidly through social media.

Just two years out of an MFA program at Arizona State, Lam attributes her ability to be a full-time artist right now with her success on Instagram. This past year she has completed multiple residencies (most recently with Fort Works Art),  gained gallery representation, and landed a spot at Art Basel Miami.

So, then, it shouldn’t have been all that shocking when I ran across one of Lam’s pieces on Miley Cyrus’s Instagram (which I now admit that I religiously follow). But, when you see the work of one of your favorite emerging artists on one of the biggest pop stars feed, it does make you think, “how did this happen?”

Talking in between her busy production schedule, I had the chance to ask Dan Lam not just how it happened, but also about her process, her first business moves, and what it means to be an artist on social media today.  Check it out:

AA: Let's start with the basics ... why blobs and drips?

DL: The softness of it is something I have always been attracted to. One of my favorite artists has always been Claes Oldenburg and artists that have worked with these forms — something about soft sculpture gets to me.

If I had to guess, it maybe has to do with exploring the idea something that is solid but gives the illusion of being soft or moving through time.

AA: Can you describe your process a bit?

DL: First, I experiment a lot. The blobs and drips start with a liquid two-part foam. When you mix it together, it starts to expand. The best part of the material is that you can’t control it. The way it expands it up to the material.

I pour the foam and let it set. Then, I usually cover it in acrylic paint, usually a bright color and let that dry. Then I apply spikes (that takes a day). Then, I apply epoxy resin and apply iridescent mediums like glitter or rhinestones.

AA: What was your first experience at Art Basel Miami Beach like?

DL: It was the best … just … amazing. I had heard people talking about Art Basel every year, and it seemed like a big deal. It has always been a personal goal of mine to get there. A lot of people told me how crazy it gets and it’s all true.

My favorite part really was that I saw a lot of art and I met so many artists. It was like art camp. As an artist, you are alone in your studio 300+ days a year and then all of a sudden for a week you get to spend a lot of time with people who also spend a lot of time alone and you just get each other on a fundamental level.

Filling Out by Dan Lam.

AA: You just recently graduated from your MFA and have had already had a reasonable amount of success. What did your first year out of your MFA look like?

DL: When I graduated from Arizona State in 2014, I moved to Midland, Texas with my boyfriend. It’s the middle of nowhere and all there is is oil — the whole city revolves around oil. While I lived there, I had the opportunity to teach at a community college and had the financial freedom to focus on art right out of art school.

You hear so many stories of artists graduating and getting consumed by a day job out of necessity. I kept all of those stories and that information in mind, and I kept making stuff.

I was mostly making things that were exercises that maybe didn’t get anywhere. That's the year that I decided to get into Instagram and post and see how to connect. I wanted to see what social media could do. I used the year to focus on new work and focus on social media.

Right before we moved, I made my first drip sculpture. Even though my wall pieces were starting to get more attention and I was starting to get more interviews and shows — the drips made it explode. 2016 has just absolutely exploded; I have had a lot of opportunities for shows and galleries approaching me.  

It’s so different than a few years ago. People are now reaching out to me. Whereas a few years ago, I was going on open calls. This has been totally unexpected and I am so happy to find a way to connect with so many people.

AA: What has been the most unexpected part of this experience as an emerging artist been? 

DL: The biggest thing is that I’m a full-time artist now. That two years after grad school I can be a full-time artist. Especially after Basel, I just keep thinking just “how?” I never went into this thinking that I would rub elbows with celebrities. I would’ve never thought that Miley Cyrus would get my work.

AA: Yeah, so how did that all happen?

DL: Wayne Coyne (from the Flaming Lips) started following me and then maybe a month later Miley Cyrus started following me. Because of the rate my Instagram account grows, I miss a lot of things. A month later Miley DM’ed me on Instagram and said, “Hey girl, I have an art installation in my house and was wondering if you wanted to participate.” I had to double-check that I wasn’t being scammed.

This was my first business move. When she reached out she told me about this room she had with a disco ball piano and money wall and once it’s done she was planning to pair up with Imprint or Paper Magazine and they were planning to photograph it and do a write up on it. She didn’t say, “I want to buy a piece.” She asked if I wanted to participate.

I asked a bunch of people and some people said she should pay and some people were like, “she has 50 million followers.”  I went ahead and sent her a piece and understanding that with that amount of followers, there was going to return. As time has gone on, there have been more opportunities. The same thing happened with Lilly Aldridge. I only found out later that sometimes people pay 100k for a post on big accounts. It’s definitely more valuable long term.

All Black Everything by Dan Lam. 

AA: You have a significant social presence. How important do you think social media is for today’s artists?

DL: I think it’s super important. If you are an artist and you aren’t using it, you aren’t necessarily harming yourself, but you aren’t helping yourself either. The real thing about Instagram is about connecting with other artists. You get on Instagram, on social media, and you find another artist you admire — you start talking, collaborating, and trading. It’s like networking but in your circle.

Also, the sheer exposure of eyes on your work is tremendous. I wouldn’t be a full-time artist right now if it wasn’t for Instagram. It is a super valuable tool. The galleries on Instagram are also connecting.

It’s powerful across the board for the art world.

AA: What advice would you give to other artists seeking to build their online reputation?

DL: I think, from my perspective, approach it from how you want to approach it. What does your gut tell you to do?  There are PR people that tell you to do this, or that, or whatever. But, if you want to have a clear voice as an artist, even the way that you post reflects on that. Do what you do and keep it "you".

I personally keep my Instagram very curated and keep it about the work. I don’t post about myself very often. It helps it keep things separately. I don't want my feed to be about how I look like or who I am. I think that’s why a lot of people thought I was a guy for a while — both because of my name and lack of face.

Taking good pictures is the most important. Get good lighting. I take mine with my phone and natural light.

AA: Any other insights for artists looking to get their big break using social media?

DL: Use the tool to actually connect and make connections. If you follow each other and want to connect, DM them and follow up. You never know what would happen. Help each other out. Say, “Oh, I know there is a gallery you would fit in well with. You never know what could happen down the road.”

I also feel like the images have to have a certain aesthetic. There are things that are more popular than others. Like when I post glitter stuff, it always appeals to a lot of users. You can definitely do things to attract other people — but only do that if it already fits into your work. It’s a weird blurry line because you don’t want to post things just for likes, but also if you want to grow your following base then, should you?

AA: As the year comes to an end, we have been asking artists for their 2017 wishes for other artists, people, and the world in general. Do you have a wish that you would like to see?

DL: I think that artists need to keep doing what they are doing and maybe doing it even more. Our country is kinda in a crazy place right now and I know a lot of artists that are like, “What do we do?” I think Art is extremely important and that we can’t give up. I hope they don’t let the current social climate take away from it.

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